Essays: Baubles

This time of year, American robins move in large flocks. They adorn bare trees all over our area. Last weekend, they came to our backyard in waves. Their washed-out orange underparts made it look like our sweetgum trees were covered in apricots. Stone fruit. Flesh clinging to a hard center clinging to a branch. I haven’t seen any robins for two days, but I know if I drove out to the nearest wetlands or even cruised across town, I’d see them clutching the trees, their legs like thick stems.

Robin, by John James Audubon. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

Last week, I learned how to tell the difference between the male and female robin. Each time half a dozen or more gathered at our birdbath, I practiced my identification skills. “Male, male, male, female, male.” Now that I know what I’m looking at, the distinction is obvious. Her coloration is so much softer, especially her head, which is greige as opposed to charcoal or sable. Still, more than four decades of my life passed before I could see anything other than a generic robin — the Platonic ideal of the bird, perhaps. I was not seeing them, only some loosely held idea of them that came to feel like seeing.

Robin. It’s a soft word, like a wool sweater on a cold night. A comfortable word for a bird who brought me comfort as a child. The muted browns. The rich oranges. These birds carried fall’s earthy color palette on their bodies along with the promise of all that fall is after the terrible brutality of a hot, dry summer — one in which emotions routinely got out of hand as oppressive days ground into stifling nights. Nothing mixed well with the heat: not exertion, not rest, not that last glass of vodka, not my parents’ dealings with one another or with me.

My mother loved robins and would shrill “Robin! Robin!” whenever she saw one at the birdbath. Not all birds received such a ceremonious reception. The robin was on my mother’s bird-celebrity shortlist, along with the northern cardinal and, in the number one spot, the scissor-tailed flycatcher, who was our state bird. I’m not sure how any birds made their way to that birdbath, let alone the ones my mother loved most. My father had bulldozed the backyard and veneered the soil with concrete. Like frosting, he skimmed the concrete with a mixture of pebbles and epoxy. He left two trees standing — a magnolia and a sweetgum. The latter died, most likely from the abuse of having its surface roots constricted. My mother put a birdbath where the sweetgum had been. Like its surroundings, the bath was made of concrete. She placed rust-colored lava rocks on the circle of exposed earth that had surrounded the tree. The birdbath rose from the rocks like a whimsical headstone. Bird sightings were few and far between, but now and again a desperate winged creature would traverse the concrete jungle for a few sips of water and a bath on a feverous day.

That was my introduction to birds. Ultimately, they were baubles to my mother, as I was her bauble. She never moved beyond her initial excitement about seeing birds to actually watching them. Like everything, they were accessories. Bird. Child. Earrings. A pair of strappy sandals into which she wedged her tumid feet. Each played the same role and had the same status. Birds were something to chirpily declare having seen — “I saw a cardinal today!” — as if, as an extension of herself, the birds made her more valuable than she was on her own. They weren’t something to care for, to learn about, to appreciate, to protect. They certainly weren’t something to be with or to go out of one’s way for. My mother never went into the woods or fields or grasslands looking for birds, leaving her own world in order to get a glimpse of theirs. With the exception of my father, everything that came and went in her life did so on her terms. She was a planet. Everything else was a celestial object pulled for a time into her orbit. So I grew up with vague impressions of a few birds, namely my mother’s favorites.

What my father contributed to my understanding of birds amounted to coddling purple martins while attempting to starve European starlings. The martins got a fancy hotel in the sky, as blinding in the sun as the crest of a wave on a bright day. Below, he set a trap for the starlings: a wire cage that allowed them to enter but not exit. The device was not unlike the hanging cages used in Europe during the medieval period. I ended the torture the day after my father caught his first starling. I couldn’t bear witness to that barbaric form of execution and not do something. I found an older child in the neighborhood who was able to reach the trap and convinced her to open it. I knew I’d pay later. I didn’t care. The bird flew off, and that meant everything to me. My father stopped putting the purple martin house up after that. Its green and white facade languished in the back corner of our property until he died, and for two decades thereafter. My mother hated it but couldn’t bring herself to remove it. Unlike the starling he tried to starve, my father died quickly. Heart attack. Two words like stones that I didn’t know until I knew them and he was gone, a bird set free from a trap.

We had two juvenile robins in our yard this summer. That was before I was serious about watching birds. These were just two of the animals we inherited when we purchased our house in June. They were adorable in the way baby birds always seem to be. They don’t know quite what to make of the world or their place in it. I can’t imagine experiencing and processing so much so quickly. Every day for them is life and death, not that they think about it in those terms. But something in them knows already, if “knows” is the right word, to be on alert. If they used language, verbs like “fly,” “dart,” and “take cover” would be central to their vocabulary. They would be governed by a lexicon of imperatives.

It’s hard to look at birds and not think about the trauma I’ve experienced and the ways it’s shaped me. My working vocabulary is not unlike the one I’ve imposed on them. I, too, dart and take cover when I sense danger, even when no danger is present. Perhaps this is why I feel so protective of birds, why I whisper prayers for them under my breath or plead with them to hang in there. “Please make it through the day,” I would say to the juvenile robins. “Just try.” Then I would look for them the next day and, seeing them, smile.

My relationship with the young robins was quieter and more intimate than the one I have with the flocks who’ve visited the yard recently. Those adults have come by the dozens for the sole purpose of drinking water then moving on. With each wave, a handful of starlings also arrived. They seemed to be shadowing the robins, perhaps to take advantage of their ability to find resources. Between the robins and the starlings, the whole yard was mobbed. It looked like a pointillist painting, each bird a dab of black or brown ink. My partner was intimidated by the crowd. I’m not sure the smaller birds appreciated it, either.

Birds are complicated. They aren’t the simplistic trinkets my mother took them for. What I know about them is changing with each day, each encounter. I’ve learned that they don’t sound the same from place to place. The dark-eyed juncos use calls in the country that they don’t use in my backyard. They don’t act the same, either. Within a species, some birds are bolder than others. Some appear to be teachers while others are more apt to watch and learn. Some take the opportunity to feed while others are sleeping. Some experiment while others go by the books. Complexity exists at the group level as well. Case in point: The sparrows are fighting right next to me at the window feeder. Hierarchy is being established and defended. One’s place in the hierarchy can mean the difference between surviving the winter and succumbing to its cruelties. As I watched the flocks of robins who swarmed my yard, I realized there were more social dynamics among them than I would ever understand. My knowledge of them is akin to looking into a room through a cracked door. I see some of the details, but I have no idea what the room really looks like.

My relationship with birds is growing more complicated. I thought I’d signed up for learning their names and how to identify them. But now I’m involved. I’m moving away from my mother’s “Robin! Robin!” approach and into something else. “Bird” is coming to mean something richer, stranger and more mysterious than it ever did when I was a child staring at a cement birdbath girdled by a cement lawn, a single bird writhing in the shallow water — though now that I think about it, the birds I watched as a child were just as rich, strange and mysterious as any. Fancy that.